TOKYO—When organizers of the 2020 Olympics decided to move endurance events like the marathon and the race walk from Tokyo to Sapporo, some eight hours north of Japan’s sweltering capital, it was a strategic attempt to shield athletes from the big city’s crushing combination of heat and humidity.
It looks like the attempt might have failed. Not that the weather folks can’t be proven wrong. But the forecasted high for Sapporo on Friday, when the men’s and women’s 50- and 20- kilometre race walks are slated to take place, is for 33 C and 40 per cent humidity. That’s a “real feel” of about 39 C — scant relief from the heat index of 41 C expected in Tokyo.
Which is fine with Vancouver’s Evan Dunfee, Canada’s best hope at a race-walking medal.
“Whatever they can throw at us conditions-wise, I hope it’s as brutal as possible,” Dunfee was saying in the lead-up to these Olympics. “That’ll put me at the start with a smile on my face.”
Bring on the sauna, in other words. At an Olympics where the soupy conditions have been a regular story, Dunfee’s take isn’t exactly a mainstream opinion among athletes. But then Dunfee has never been accused of being a conformist. When he’s not competing, he’s a fiery critic of the powers that be in global sport who will eloquently rail against the International Olympic Committee’s trail of white-elephant Games or expertly take apart the various hypocrisies of the world’s anti-doping efforts. He is also a man of principle who rose to considerable fame at the Rio Olympics after he decided not to protest what could easily have been considered a dubious ruling that, to some eyes, cost him a bronze medal.
While Dunfee acknowledged he was taken out of rhythm by a late-race hip check clearly thrown by Japan’s Hirooki Arai — and while an initial ruling by judges disqualified Arai from the race, only to see him reinstalled as bronze medallist on an appeal — Dunfee chose not to pile another appeal onto the process, even though there was a decent chance it might have earned him a medal.
“I believe the right decision stood,” Dunfee said at the time. “I wanted it so badly. But it’s the Olympics — everyone wants it that badly. (Arai) got the better of me.”
Though he clearly knows his way around an argument, in the lead-up to a big competition like this one Dunfee will tell you he flips a switch. He morphs from selfless truth teller interested in advancing the greater good to a resident of a bubble that he describes as a “selfish focus.” It’s his way of shutting out distractions with the singular goal of being his best on race day.
Not that he wouldn’t indulge in a brief summary of his talking points in the days before he jetted off to Japan. Lest he be accused of his own brand of hypocrisy — the guy who criticizes the Olympics only to compete in them — Dunfee points out that race walking can make a case as the Olympic event with the lowest of overheads.
“It’s an event that requires next to zero infrastructure. We need a kilometre of road closed off for a day, and we’re open to anyone to come by and watch. We’re a free event,” he said. “So those two things are really a saving grace, once I start to narrow my focus. For all my criticisms of the IOC and the Olympics, I do feel like race walking — and a few other events — can provide a ton of positive value back. That’s what I start to lean on as we get closer and closer.”
This is a swan song of sorts. After these Olympics, the 50-kilometre race walk will be no more; it will be usurped by the 20-kilometre event in Paris in 2024. And while the world championships will still feature a longer event, a 35-kilometre option, Dunfee has made the case there’ll be no replacing the 50.
“One of the things I love about the 50 kilometres is that so much can go wrong. You can feel great at 40 kilometres and, literally, by 41 kilometres, the world’s collapsing around you,” he said. “I absolutely love that.”
That’s not to say he won’t be continuing in the sport. The next world championships, he points out, are in Eugene, Ore., which is closer to Vancouver than Sapporo is to Tokyo. He has designated the worlds as a home game, of sorts, and is hoping to bring down a busload of family and friends to watch him compete at 35 kilometres, even if he’d rather go longer.
“Anything that’s not 50 kilometres, I won’t love as much,” he said.
If the life of a race walker isn’t the stuff of many childhood dreams, Dunfee’s rugged individualism has gained him supporters. Having spent the bulk of his career wooing would-be sponsors, and sometimes without much success — he lost his shoe deal with New Balance after he won bronze at the world championships — the lead-up to Tokyo saw him get a call from the people at Kraft Dinner, once the budget dinner of choice for underfunded Canadian athletes in the days before Own the Podium. They offered him a sponsorship opportunity to go with a social-media campaign.
“I jumped on a call thinking this is maybe a joke. And they basically said, ‘We think you have value. We think race walking has value,’ ” Dunfee said. “I was just like, ‘What? You think I have value? You think I’m great? Please, tell me this again.’ It’s really nice to hear. I’m not used to hearing that.”
It’s hot enough in Japan this week that it’s possible Dunfee could whip up a pot of the cheesy concoction without the aid of an oven. Which suits him fine. Part of Dunfee’s hotter-is-better confidence comes from the success he enjoyed at the 2019 world athletics championships in the desert that is Doha, Qatar, where he won bronze while battling a swelter he described as “sadistic.” If he’ll tell you he’s not the most genetically gifted walker in the field, he said he prides himself on knowing precisely what his body will need to survive a 50-kilometre slog that will take something in the range of four hours.
It’s the stuff of well-honed science and do-it-yourself ingenuity. Every two kilometres his support crew will give him a fresh hat that’s been chilling in an ice cooler, or possibly a length of a woman’s stocking filled with ice and sealed at both ends that he’ll wrap around his neck. He’ll consume about 150 millilitres of fluid on every loop, which will put his full-race fluid intake at something close to four litres. Just to be sure he’s on the right track, he’ll have an on-site nutritionist weighing the bottles before and after he drinks to make sure he’s on pace for optimal hydration.
“I plan out to the millilitre how much I’m drinking every two kilometres — we’re that honed in,” Dunfee said. “It really puts the ‘endure’ in an endurance event. Because it’s really one of those events where it’s just, ‘How can you endure for 50 kilometres?’ I love that. Because it takes so much thought and preparation.”
Which is to say, crank up the sauna. Evan Dunfee is ready to endure the heat.
Dave Feschuk is a Toronto-based sports columnist for the Star. Follow him on Twitter: @dfeschuk